In this friendly if far from uncritical biography, Alice Kessler-Harris focuses on Lillian Hellman as a woman both of her time and ahead of her time. She was “a woman among men” who “became the economically successful playwright and celebrity she was by blurring gender boundaries.” Born in 1905 in New Orleans, she “reached beyond southern tradition and turned into a misfit, becoming in the eyes of all around her a difficult woman.” Her life tells us “how complicated it must have been for a woman in the deepest part of the twentieth century to stay true to her desires even as she juggled the pressures of the world around her.” Nearly seven decades after her birth, participating in a panel discussion about the “condition of woman today,” she “could not fully identify with the modern version of women’s liberation” but insisted on going her own way:

“By herself, through hard work and talent, she had achieved money, status, and fame in her lifetime and by her own hand. She was a self-made woman. Her capacity to live freely — her sexual liberation, her personal freedom — rested on the economic foundation she built for herself. Young women, she thought, could choose to emulate her unorthodox lifestyle — to emulate her capacity ‘to walk out if somebody insults me’ — only if they were economically independent. But the younger generation of women reserved their adulation for her style. They admired her brash and outspoken stance, her ability to smoke and to swear and above all her courage in living by her own rules of personal conduct. ‘I was so bored. I got so nasty,’ she told an interviewer about that famous panel. ‘Nobody seemed to be talking about economics.’ ”

What this suggests, to me at least, is that Hellman may ultimately prove more interesting and important as a figure than as a writer. Much celebrated from the 1930s until her death in 1984 for her plays, notably “The Little Foxes” and “The Children’s Hour,” and for her highly fictionalized volumes of autobiography, she seems now to be slowly fading from the literary scene. In part that is because, her writing skills to the contrary notwithstanding, she was more a middlebrow than a literary writer, and in larger part because her work has dated quickly. Among American playwrights of the 20th century she scarcely ranks with Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, or for that matter even with the resolutely middlebrow Arthur Miller. Her memoirs — “An Unfinished Woman,” “Pentimento,” “Scoundrel Time” — remain in print, but they long ago lost the immediacy that drew so many readers to them, women most especially.

It is also to the point that fairly or not, her reputation as a human being has suffered terribly in the three decades since her death. “How had it happened,” Kessler-Harris asks, “that Lillian Hellman, once so honored and famous, admired for her blunt and plainspoken style, had become the archetype of hypocrisy, the quintessential liar, the embodiment of ugliness? How was it that she was so widely remembered as a rigid Stalinist, an angry woman, a greedy, self-aggrandizing individual in a world where so many others had committed many of the same sins?” One obvious explanation is the fierce (and fiercely quotable) attack that Mary McCarthy launched against her in 1979. She said: “Lillian Hellman, I think is tremendously overrated, a bad writer, a dishonest writer. Every word she says is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’ ”

“A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman” by Alice Kepler-Harris (Bloomsbury USA)

Coming as they did from a writer whom I now find even more overrated than Hellman, those words probably should not have stung as deeply as they did. They drove Hellman around the bend, launching her on a legal action against McCarthy that ended inconclusively, doing no credit to either participant. Beyond that, it is true that Hellman remained a loyal Stalinist well after the tyranny and mass bloodshed of his regime had been conclusively disclosed, that she was given to explosive outbursts of anger and to melodramatic posturing and that she squeezed every nickel until it bled. Her posthumous reputation is not without justification.

Yet Kessler-Harris — a highly regarded historian who teaches history at Columbia University — sees Hellman as having been nurtured from childhood in “lessons of honesty, integrity, justice, and decency,” concepts that “remained the heart and soul of American culture and of the life she would construct for herself.” She sees Hellman as a principled moralist who could not resist the pulpit: “That she proclaimed her moral principles loudly — in her plays and her memoirs and at every public opportunity — must have irked friends and enemies alike. She fully earned the labels of self-righteousness and self-aggrandizement that her critics leveled at her.” Had she not insisted on flinging these moral principles in the face of everyone who crossed her path, she doubtless would not have made as many enemies as she did.

She was a strange and often self-contradictory person. Though she is now regarded as an emblematic figure of the feminist revolution, she was caustic about feminist ideologues and often preferred to adopt a “masculine pose,” one influenced by her long, if off-and-on, relationship with Dashiell Hammett: “Like Hammett (and such other 1930s figures as Hemingway and Faulkner), she drank, smoked, and partied nonstop. . . . Nor did she make a secret of her sexual liaisons: she approached men she desired aggressively and slept with them at will. Quickly she earned a reputation as a ‘she-Hammett.’ But she wanted to be manly in another way, too, by exhibiting qualities of courage and forcefulness, by refusing to back down from a fight. These qualities contributed to her reputation as a stubborn woman, a difficult woman, a fighter.”

That her political convictions were sincere and heartfelt is beyond question, but she was naive and credulous. Like many real or fancied American intellectuals during the 1930s she fell under the sway of communism, joining the Communist Party in 1938 “after the worst of the Moscow purge trials and in full awareness of them.” Over the years she was variously depicted as a “known communist” or a “fellow traveler” or an “unrepentant Stalinist,” which Kessler-Harris chooses to view as “less about Hellman’s beliefs and practices than about the public mind-set from which they emerged,” i.e., McCarthyism and the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s. There is some truth to this, but Hellman’s stubborn refusal to re-examine her youthful beliefs in the light of compelling evidence against them does not speak well of her. Her famous appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee in May 1952 was indeed something of a triumph for her, but it was more rhetorical than anything else.

Kessler-Harris is right to argue that the life Hellman led “illuminates the world she confronted,” most importantly the worlds of emerging women and of political fear and contention. Hellman’s insistence on economic liberation and self-sufficiency was sound, and more realistic than the fuzzy ideology that so many feminists embraced. If only she had been able to keep a lid on her explosive temper and the “pain and anger” that set it off, she might have carved a prominent place for herself not merely in the history of American women but in American history itself. As it is she is at best a marginal figure, interesting for the details of her own life (too many of which constitute little more than the higher gossip), much less so for the work that made her briefly famous. Her day is done.


The Challenging Life and
Times of Lillian Hellman

By Alice Kessler-Harris

Bloomsbury. 439 pp. $30